French Expressions: Two times my students were the cutest ever

Most teachers know what it feels like to buried under a pile of marking (or what I call “grading”). Once I spent the entire week of Toussaint vacation grading exams, and it took more time than an actual week of teaching. The only bright spot was finding hilarious mistranslations and other mirth-inducing wranglings of the English language.

Please don’t think I’m mocking my former students. I’m painfully aware of all the mistakes I’ve made in my second language too! I believe it’s better to guess and be wrong than to not try at all, because that’s how you get better. There’s no shame in mistakes, and I do not mean to imply anything to the contrary.

But sometimes you’ve been reading the same translation exam for two days and someone writes, “the path that sniffled all around the hangover” (instead of the “path that wound along the cliff”) and it’s just funny. I have a whole list of them and they still make me laugh.

How about that time when “maladroit” (“awkward”) turned into “left-handed,” “stupid,” and “badlucky”? Or the time “the president was smashed during the elections”? Or that other time when a bunch of students left the L out of “clock”? (Yeah.) Or the most enigmatic of all – “Then he started to speak in his shave.” Can you guess what that was supposed to be? (It was, “Then it started to drizzle.” Really not sure what happened there.)

These two little anecdotes stick out in my mind because I thought they were pretty cute. Both students translated French expressions word-for-word into English – it didn’t quite work out, but it gave me a giggle.

Let’s get back to our sheeps

I used to teach a phonetics/oral skills class where the students turned in audio recordings for their final exams. One of my students, who actually spoke English quite fluidly, went off on a bit of a tangent in his recording. Then he declared enthusiastically, “But now, let’s get back to our sheeps!” 

If that seems like the most random thing ever, here’s some context: There’s an expression in French (“Revenons à nos moutons”*) which literally means, “Let’s go back to our sheep,” but figuratively means, “Let’s get back to business” or “Let’s get back on topic.” But “Let’s get back to our sheeps” is way cuter. Let’s start saying that instead.

(*Now I actually use this expression to test machine translation engines to see if they will give me the figurative meaning or the literal one, and it always reminds me of this student!)

The small mouse

In my last year of teaching, I had a group of students that I just loved. They were just a really nice group of kids – I still remember them fondly. During the semester, we studied the past tense construction “used to” (e.g. “I used to hate cheese but now I’m addicted to Comté”). On the midterm, one student wrote, “I used to believe in the small mouse.” 

The small mouse? What?! But this sentence makes complete sense when you know that in French, “the small mouse” (“la petite souris”) is the Tooth Fairy. Ohhhh! Luckily, I had just learned that the week before so I didn’t think she was crazy.

I do think it’s kind of crazy that the French tooth fairy is a mouse, though.


Do you have any stories like these? Which expressions make absolutely no sense when translated literally?

11 thoughts on “French Expressions: Two times my students were the cutest ever

  1. Those lost-in-translation moments do give me the giggles when marking papers – I’ve definitely made my fair share of them in French though. (I recall translating “shed” as something along the lines of “bâtiment jardinier” as I threw a complete blank in my final year translation exam!) I love the expression “revenons à nos moutons”, the French have such cute food/ animal-related idioms. Not too long ago I had a student ask if she could say “we need to put the church back in the middle of the village” and I was absolutely flummoxed until she explained the French idiom “remettre l’église au milieu du village” to me.

    1. Haha, it sounds so odd in English! (To be honest I think it sounds odd in French too…) The French have SO many food and animal related idioms, don’t they?! I keep a running list just of fruit and vegetable idioms. I don’t feel too guilty about having a giggle because I can have a laugh at my own expense too. I always had a lot of funny answers in comp orale because they were just trying to guess what they had heard, poor things. Once, they were supposed to write what a character was wearing (a linen suit) and one student wrote that he was wearing “a long bear.” I can’t help laughing, but I do sympathize that it’s not easy to take that sort of exam!

      1. There’s much hilarity to be had at both your own and others’ expense in the field of EFL! I’ve been keeping a vocabulary book this year, with all the unfamiliar idioms/ words I come across while teaching – I just need to actively use the words for them to become cemented in my memory. I’m fully aware that I’ve made (and continue to make) plenty of mistakes in French which must give them a giggle too. I would have struggled taking an exam like comp orale, though I admired the effort the students put in to at least write something down – wearing “a long bear” would be quite something to see though! I overheard a couple of colleagues discussing the second year comp orale exam, and apparently they’d used a speech by Malala. One of the questions asked what her name symbolised (grief-stricken) and lots of the students apparently wrote variants of “greasy chicken”!!

      2. Haha, I’m laughing out loud at “greasy chicken”! It’s certainly not an easy question – I can just imagine them thinking, “It CAN’T mean greasy chicken, but I swear that’s what she’s saying!” For one comp orale exam, there was “dew on the grass” but we got a lot of “Jews in the grass”. Olala! I also keep a vocabulary list of new words and expressions too 🙂 there is always so much more to learn!

      3. The students must wrack their brains and still be thinking that what they’re hearing is utter nonsense. (If someone’s name actually did mean “greasy chicken” I don’t think I’d be able to contain myself.) Whoops – though not hard to see how they came up with that one!

  2. This is HILARIOUS! I love it when people try to literally translate expressions like that and it just doesn’t work whatsoever. I remember a client of mine at my old job wrote “it comes like a hair on the soup”. My English coworker who had never heard the French expression (arriver comme un cheveux sur la soupe) was like “Whattttt?!”

    P.S. I love your blog! I can’t believe I had no idea you were a blogger this whole time. I stumbled upon it because I follow “Oui in France” and she mentioned your blog. I immediately knew it was you because I mean… how many C-Roses that live in France are there?

    1. Hi!!! Yes, I have to blog secretly because I’m written too many things that I’m embarrassed about! 🙂 But I can’t be too anonymous because yes, I have a rather unique name! “To come like a hair on the soup” sounds soooo nonsensical in English!!! I’m glad that you find this funny too – sometimes I write things that are funny to me but I worry that I’m the only one who finds them amusing.

  3. hello! I think those are funny too! really the “hair in the soup” really got me”.

    I was actually one of your student last year( 2eme année LEA, my name is Frédéric(please remember me). and I have to say it : I spent 4 Years in that university and you are the best teacher I ever had. When the week was ending, we were all tired , but you, like some kind of energy bomb, you were jumping around, cheering everyone up. I loved your classes and I miss you now. We miss you. and we are still wondering where in the world you find all that energy??
    (don’t ask me how I knew you had a blog, tho hehehe)
    lots of love

    1. Hi Frédéric, of course I remember you! You were one of the best students in your class and you always had interesting questions. (I actually do remember marking your final exam last year, it was excellent work.) I’m happy to hear from you, thank you so much for your kind words!! You made my day 🙂 I know it is not always easy to be in Thème class on Thursday afternoon so I’m glad you all didn’t suffer too much in my class. I used to teach all day on Thursday until 20h so I had to have a lot of energy, haha! I hope this year is going very well for you. Wishing you all the best from California!

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